Through the Wardrobe?

March, aka Winter sunset
"What's that noise?" said Lucy suddenly. It was a far larger house than she had ever been in before and the thought of all those long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms was beginning to make her feel a little bit creepy. [...]
"It's an owl," said Peter. "This is going to be a wonderful place for birds...I say, let's go and explore tomorrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks."
"Badgers!" said Lucy.
"Foxes!" said Edmund.
"Rabbits!" said Susan.
But when next morning came there was a steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor even the stream in the garden.                                                                                            
                                                                         C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I never realised before how very like Lucy I have sometimes felt here on Rum.

For one thing, the rain hasn't let up for over a week, except when it turns to snow, sleet or hail. Today is the first patch of blue sky we've seen for days, and although Billy's mended the ceilings and the castle is drying out, the island is full of water, wherever you look. Puddles up to our knees flood the path to the shop and we nearly have an authentic moat around the castle. The wind and rain has driven the deer and even two of the wild goats further down off the mountains and towards the village; I walked round the sodden Nature Trail and past a stag grazing in the pony field, but the rain and wind were so loud, he didn't even notice me.

The weather has its own excitement, if you can get past the fits of depression it inevitably causes when there is nowhere else to go and nowhere dry, except home, to sit. There may not have been much blue in the sky recently, but we did have a purple sunset the other day, and a visit from ten singing seals...and there are other magical sides to Rum, too.

On 2nd March we experienced big, whirling clouds of proper snow for the first time on Rum, and after tea-time we went out into it, hoping for snowman weather. But we only made it as far as the avenue before it stopped. Mel was disappointed, but as the snow settled we noticed that an extraordinary colour had filled the island. The hills and woods were dusted with powdery white, but beneath this the green, russet and grey of the trees and moorland had turned to a deep purple, the pool of Loch Scresort reflecting them in a silvery shimmer. The bay was suddenly calm, and as we turned back along Shore Road we saw the ten grey seals that Mel had earlier noticed, two of them swimming up to check us out, while others dived and dipped and flourished their flippers in the water. We never see them do this – they usually drift with the tides, bottling up to get the air before disappearing down again. This time they were playing, and as we watched them they suddenly started to sing. I've never heard this before, and we stood entranced listening to their strange mooing, groaning call, which turned to a deep churring or growling at times, like a dog suspicious of strangers. As the moon came out above the mountains and it got darker, we walked home, leaving the seals still singing and playing behind us. They continued to come in and out of the bay for a few more days before leaving us; now we have only four again.

This short interlude was a happy break in the monotony of the rain. Will it ever stop? Even Mel is succumbing to rain-related misery, and immersion in Games of Thrones only helps up to a point. But we've been busy. On 17th March we're holding another open day on Rum – I was drafted in to ring round potential interested parties, other people running tourist attractions in our area, cruise organisers or people whose businesses are inevitably bound up with ours, like Calmac or Mallaig's tourist information office. Or, indeed, whisky distilleries. I rang one and spoke to the stressed manager; he explained he'd love to come, but doesn't know if he can get away: "The distillery's been bought up by a Japanese company, and the Japs like to do spot checks...they can turn up at any time." 

Despite his worry, he was very happy to sit and chat for a while; not my usual experience of cold calling. It's always nice how how people's normal suspicions of other people - in this for example when effectively ringing them up to try to sell them something - tend to be instantly allayed when we say we live on Rum. Wherever we are, somehow the confession that we live on a tiny island has an extraordinary effect; as if we were somehow outside the politics, pressures and tensions of everyday life in the Real World.  Perhaps they're so intrigued they forget to tense up, worrying what we might want of them. Perhaps they think of us as a kind of mythical being, come from a wintry Narnia far away, with no attachments to human life. Perhaps we're seen as harmless innocents who, like the early saints on Iona or Lindisfarne, have retreated to a more spiritual home and moved far beyond all the scheming, arguments and feuding of normal human relationships.

Ah, if only that were true! It would be more accurate to say that here on Rum, the – let's say compactness– of our community acts as a magnifying glass on human nature, in all its complicated glory. Here kindness, selfishness, nosiness, an utter lack of interest, greed and altruism, idealism and cynicism are frequently to be seen all at once and all in the same person.

Our most recent community meeting left me utterly frustrated, with decisions made that not only seemed to me unwise, but that clearly made all the rest of the attendees uncomfortable too – to put it mildly. Yet at the same time, not one of those attendees seemed able to raise an objection, to voice what they were feeling (though I did try...).  How can we all sit there and know exactly why a certain decision may raise immense concerns, yet at the same time feel unable to question it? I spent the entire next day puzzling over this question, although in some ways the answer's obvious: it's hard to confront people you have to live with day after day after day, hard to be courageous in the face of potential conflict.  But a more complex answer, perhaps a more truthful one, came as usual in the form of having the exact opposite experience with the exact same people in the course of the following week...

To celebrate World Book Day, sparkly Mrs Ingram, our Acting Head Teacher now Stuart has left, bicycled through the village in the rain with her two enthusiastic pupils to invite us all to the school on Friday for coffee and cake and to talk about our favourite books. Eve and Joss had made posters and despite the grumpiness induced by the meeting, I was looking forward to the event. Clutching our carefully packaged Favourite Books (wrapped in carrier bags to keep off the torrential rain), Mel and I duly got on our bikes on Friday morning and set off through the downpour to the school. There we met Trudi and Nicola, also wrapped up against the weather (though not in carrier bags), and soon afterwards the girls were kept continually busy running to the door to welcome their guests. "Count how many teas we want, Joss!" Deb encouraged the children, and soon there were about sixteen of us, kids and grown-ups, mums and dads, friends, and general reading enthusiasts holding tightly to warming mugs of tea or coffee and chatting passionately about the books we loved, what they'd taught us and what we wanted to share.

I had brought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the first proper book my dad read to me along with The Hobbit, and thanks to C.S. Lewis' writing and my dad's amazing talent at telling the story, the one that really made me want to read, so that I could read it faster and on my own. I met with many cries of recognition and memories of Puffin Club excitement in the 1970s; several of us remembered buying all seven of the Narnia books, in a special box, for just 50p.  Mel had brought one of Dr Seuss' lesser known stories, The Many Mice of Mr Brice, a tantalising pop-up tale of mice that get up to all sorts of tricks when you pull the right bit of cardboard. Despite all Mel's care and attention, Mr Brice's Mice didn't get off entirely unharmed from the Book Day – there were too many eager little hands trying to turn the cardboard wheel and make Harriet Mouse vanish and come back again.

Some of the adults had brought grown-up books – Brian Patten's Love Poems or To Kill a Mockingbird being more than one person's favourite. Others were more practical, citing John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It  or a book on quilting as being their steadfast companions on Rum.  Claire had brought her own book, a self-published guide to the island with her own lovely illustrations of eagles, stags and otters. Nicola's choice was the deceptively simple children's story of the Soul Bird, a creature that lives in all of us and holds the key to all our many moods.

Rather than simply talk abour our own books, we were asked to tell the group what we'd enjoyed learning about other people's choices. I found that Nicola's book had made the biggest impression on me. The point of the book is not to judge our moods or to tell you which is best, happiness or sadness, compassion or anger, enthusiasm or laziness. The point is to tell us that we all have all of these feelings, and all of them have their own special place inside us, even if there are some that we don't want to show other people, or let out too often. 

It was lovely to see everyone come together and talk about something that had nothing directly to do with Rum, nothing to do with our daily struggles and our worries and our jealousies and our anxieties. Just to talk about the things we love, and tell each other why we love them. But in a way it had everything to do with Rum as well. It made it easier for me to understand what had happened at the meeting the previous week, if not to agree with it. We obsess so often about how other people are behaving, but as the Soul Bird reminded me, do we really care about what they are feeling? Maybe if we felt safer, in a place we could all really say what we felt and thought without hurting others or ourselves, if we could all talk about what we love and feel passionate about as honestly and kindly as we did about our books, then maybe our democracy here on Rum would work far better.  And maybe we wouldn't struggle with our little island quite as much as we do. 

So thank you to Deb, to the children and to everyone who brought their books – books really do open up new and magical worlds, and they can open your heart as well as your mind. And not that I'm saying my book's the best or anything, but in these difficult, rain-filled days it I'm glad to say that as so often, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is right: winter won't really last for ever!

A diverse community flourishing on Rum

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